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tom moody

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Is it possible Jonathan Lethem is a better critic than fiction writer? Motherless Brooklyn aside, his essays on popular culture, especially comics and science fiction, seem more urgent and hilarious to me than his books. I'm thinking specifically of his essays in Bookforum on the secret shame of being a Marvel Comics fan and the sometimes anticlimactic ecstasies of discovering old Philip K. Dick paperbacks in used bookstores ("Vulcan's fucking Hammer! I'd found it! Of course, then I had to go and read the damn thing."). Even in Motherless, some of the highest spots were the little vignettes on pop culture, e.g. Prince ("The way he worried forty five minutes of variations out of a lone musical or verbal phrase is, as far as I know, the nearest thing in art to my condition [Tourette's]") and Mad Magazine's Don Martin ("Mad often held the concluding panel of a Martin cartoon to the following page, and part of the pleasure of his work was never knowing whether the payoff would be a visual pun or verbal riff or merely the sight of a man in a full-body cast falling out of the window into the path of a steamroller."). The following recent thoughts on Marvel Comics in the London Review of Books are also good, despite being framed by rather ordinary juvenile reminiscing:
In Marvel's greatest comics, [writer Stan] Lee and [artist Jack] Kirby were full collaborators who, like Lennon and McCartney, really were more than the sum of their parts, and who derived their greatness from the push and pull of incompatible visions. Kirby always wanted to drag the Four into the Negative Zone - deeper into psychedelic science fiction and existential alienation - while Lee resolutely pulled them back into the morass of human lives, hormonal alienation, teenage dating problems, pregnancy, and unfulfilled longings to be human and normal and loved and not to have the Baxter Building repossessed by the City of New York. Kirby threw at the Four an endless series of ponderous fallen gods or whole tribes and races of alienated antiheroes with problems no mortal could credibly contemplate. Lee made certain the Four were always answerable to the female priorities of Sue Storm - the Invisible Girl, Reed Richards's wife and famously 'the weakest member of the Fantastic Four'. She wanted a home for their boy Franklin, she wanted Reed to stay out of the Negative Zone, and she was willing to quit the Four and quit the marriage to stand up for what she believed.

I seriously doubt whether any 1970s Marvel-loving boy ever had a sexual fantasy about Sue Storm. We had Valkyrie, Red Sonja, the Cat, Ms Marvel, Jean Grey, Mantis and innumerable others available for that. We (I mean, I) especially liked the Cat. Sue Storm was truly invisible. She was a parent, a mom calling you home from where you played in the street, telling you it was time to brush your teeth. Not that she wasn't a hottie, but Kirby exalted her beauty in family-album style headshots, and glimpses of her, nobly pregnant, in a housedress that covered her clavicle. The writers and artists who took over The Fantastic Four after Kirby and, later, Lee departed the series, seemed impatient with the squareness of Sue and Reed's domestic situations. Surely, these weren't the hippest of the Kirby/Lee creations. Nevertheless, if you (I mean, I) accept my premise that the mid-to-late 1960s Fantastic Four were the exemplary specimens, the Revolver and Rubber Soul and White Album of comics, and if you further grant that pulling against the tide of all of Kirby's inhuman galactacism, that whole army of aliens and gods, was one single character, our squeaky little Sue, then I wonder: Invisible Girl, the most important superhero of the Silver Age of comics?

After reading this careful, historically accurate exegesis I'm still mystified why Lethem flubbed some of the references in Fortress of Solitude (see earlier post). Let's save for another time why reading about our (I mean, my) pop-cultural past strikes a deeper chord than revisiting the day to day agony and boredom of 7th and 8th grade. (hat tip to Travelers Diagram for spotting Maud Newton's spotting of the essay)

- tom moody 4-16-2004 11:11 pm [link] [7 comments]